Speaking Up About Teacher Problems

So you don't like your child's teacher? Good communication can solve many differences

Donna and David Sedevie had their doubts about their daughter's first-grade teacher. At first, they chalked them up to personality differences. But when they learned that their daughter, Alex, was hiding in the bathroom to avoid her "gifted and talented" class, they intervened.

"It was unbelievable - my child was skipping class in the first grade," Donna Sedevie says.

Looking back, Mrs. Sedevie, a Baton Rouge, La., resident, wishes she had done more, such as going straight to the teacher about what she saw as an overly ambitious math program. But the Sedevies' meeting with the principal and insistence on a more appropriate course of study put them ahead of many parents who are reluctant to speak up.

Each year, parents and children alike wait eagerly for teacher assignments. Both often have fixed opinions - sometimes based on highly unscientific observations - about who is excellent and who is to be avoided.

The majority of parents are satisfied with their children's teachers. But some have concerns - from teaching methods to suggestions that a certain teacher shows favoritism - that can lead to a disappointing year if left unaddressed. If they do, say educators and experienced parents, early contact with the principal or the teacher is essential.

If school has not yet started, a parent should, "Meet with the principal. Discuss your feelings about a placement and why it may not be the right choice," advises Pat Dingsdale, chairman of the Education Commission for the National Parent Teacher Association in Chicago.

Power of the pen

Parents can also send a letter. Some schools solicit such input from parents at the close of each school year. Ms. Dingsdale stresses the importance of parents presenting their case in the best interest of the child, favoring suggestions like "the child may need more structure, or less," or "this teacher's strategies or methodologies may not accommodate my child's learning style."

This approach will be taken more seriously than, "I heard from a neighbor that this teacher is no good," Dingsdale says.

Most school administrators will at least consider parental requests on assignments at the appropriate time during the placement process.

Experts urge parents with a problem to go straight to the teacher. Daphne Henderson, the principal of Parkview Oaks Elementary School here, finds that "often parents go over the teacher's head to the central office; they tell everyone but the teacher. Nine times out of 10 it is a lack of communication that causes the problem and when parents go to the teacher, they are able to come to an agreement that is pleasant for everybody."

But many families are reluctant to speak up after school starts. Carol Mykoff, a mother in Baton Rouge, watched her child struggle with an unsatisfactory seventh-grade math teacher, but never communicated her discomfort. "When the kids were young, I didn't say anything for fear the teacher would take it out on them somehow. When kids get older, they beg you not to say anything."

Ms. Henderson recommends keeping children involved in a positive way. "Not only do children often have information that may resolve the problem, but by including the child in the conference, it shows the child that the parents and teacher are working together," she says.

"Parents should not just come when there's a problem," she adds. When Baton Rouge parent Jean Rutherford's daughter Lillie was in kindergarten, for example, she was assigned to a teacher Mrs. Rutherford considered inadequate. "She decided the way to teach five-year-olds to add and subtract was to make them count backwards rapidly from 20, do timed tests with a stopwatch, and post the times. It was not a good start," Rutherford says.

She responded by spending a lot of time at the school: "I hung out at the classroom. The teacher had no experience; she was happy to have help."

Late requests

Changing a placement after-the-fact is far more difficult. In Sue Mayfield's 17 years of teaching, she has heard of few cases where the school has reassigned a student. Instead, she says, the teacher and parent have to try to resolve problems themselves.

Recently Ms. Mayfield, a first-grade teacher at Summit Cove Elementary School in Dillon, Colo., got into a dispute with a couple over using cursive writing. She held extra conferences with the parents, offered them reading material defending her position that the children were too young, and invited them to the classroom. Mayfield continued to teach the child. "This child was performing," she states. "If he wasn't responding, then I'd say maybe we should've looked at a different placement."

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